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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Differences in Drinking Habits

I remember the first time I tried drinking beer. I think I was 11 or 12, and we were on vacation in St. Barth's in the West Indies. My Dad was having his usual beer after diving and he decided to pour me about a finger of beer into a tumbler and had me try it out. I don't think I liked it that much, but my father told me that beer is a developed taste and that it takes some time, so he just wanted to help me on the path to responsible drinking.

I get the impression that a story like this is somewhat taboo in the United States. A parent giving their kid beer before 21? Is he out of his mind? Quite the contrary, he lived in France as a kid, where children are taught about the delights of alcohol, but more importantly, they are taught to respect its potency.

To begin, the official age for buying alcohol in France is 18 for hard alcohol and 16 years old for beer and wine. However, drinking underage is not forbidden. It used to be a common practice in schools to serve kids a little bit of wine mixed with water at lunch so that they could develop a taste for wine. This doesn't happen too often anymore, but parents here still may serve their kids a little bit of alcohol with meals. Julie's father first served her homemade cider when she was 5, and she drank it with certain meals as if it was water or milk.

The point being taught isn't to learn how to get drunk; rather the emphasis may lay on two issues. First, alcohol can be paired with certain foods and really enhance the taste of the meal. The second point is to make alcohol accessible so that getting drunk isn't looked upon as something cool to do.

In France, certain meals are not complete without the presence of wine, cider, or beer. Red wine is touted for numerous health benefits, and in addition pairs well with red meat and barbecued foods, among many other things. With a cheese course, a well paired wine can seriously enhance the flavor of a cheese. Along the Eastern border, a lot of heavy dishes are paired with white wine from the area, or in the Northeastern quadrant of France, beer. In Normandy and Brittany, one is most likely to find cider paired with their meal. These are all facts that can be looked up pretty easily on the internet.

Now, my second point is regarding its accessibility. Though a lot of people I knew drank during high school, drinking in the United States seems to explode once teenagers head off to college. People challenge each other to see who can puke first, who can drink the most without having to pee, who can finish a power hour, and so on. In essence, once people go to college, they are likely to be encouraged to drink quickly. It doesn't help that most of the popular beers in the United States are weak in alcohol content, which encourages people to drink more of them, or mix in some shots of liquor to speed up the process of drunkenness.

Why do kids go crazy on the alcohol when they head to university? It's because suddenly their parents are not watching their every move, and now they can do things that were once forbidden to them, like drink alcohol. Not only that, many times when one starts talking with a friend about what they did yesterday, the conversation will begin with "Man, I got so wasted last night" or "We started drinking and things got crazy." Showing that one can get wasted can establish a common bond, and then one can trade stories of the stupid things they did the night before when they were inebriated.

In France, I don't seem to see people bragging about their drinking prowess as much. Of course young people in France drink, and yes, they too can get drunk. It's just that with the fact that alcohol is easily accessible and in many cases its consumption is encouraged, drinking, being drunk, or being able to drink a lot isn't that impressive. The main reason? Pretty much everyone can do it.

Beer and wine are very easy to obtain in this country. In most places, a small beer is the same price as a small soda, and it is fairly common to find a beer for cheaper than a Coca-Cola in a bar, café, or restaurant. Not only that, people can drink at 18 at a bar and if you are with your parents, younger than that.

By comparison, my girlfriend Julie, who at the time was almost 26, was turned down in two bars in the United States; once because she forgot her ID and another time because no one in the restaurant recognized the French ID card. The latter was very frustrating as we were at dinner with my parents and Julie, who was the oldest amongst me and my brother, was the only one that was not allowed to have a beer with my family.

Someone pointed out to me that it seems when we (Americans) go out to bars, we assume we will be drunk, and thus hungover the next day. As a result, not many people go out during the workweek in the U.S. In France, if you are going out to hang out, this doesn't necessarily imply that you are going to get drunk. One of my friends from back home, when visiting me last year, commented on how surprising it was that people went out during the weeknights. It wasn't because people want to get drunk. Rather, it is because they wanted to meet up briefly to talk with a friend, or just hang out somewhere else than in their living room. People return home at a decent hour and still get plenty of sleep (as I mentioned in a previous post, the French lead the world in average number of hours sleeping per day).

Just like in the U.S., a lot of kids in France go through the phase of imbibing too much alcohol, but it seems to be at a younger age, around 15 or 16 years old. Not only that, many times parents accept this as a phase and let it slide, and will let their kids host parties at home, or offer to pick them up from a party at whatever time the kids feel like coming home, or encourage them to sleep over wherever they were drinking. They prefer that if their kids drink, they do it responsibly rather than get themselves into trouble.

Aside from exposure, perhaps there are a couple additional reasons why French kids appear to be more responsible with their drinking. First, many of them are not exposed to the same atmosphere as many of us were in the United States. Far fewer French adolescents attend university, 1/3 fewer than the U.S., per capita. In addition, many of those French students who attend university do so while still living with their parents. I'm sure the majority of us would have done a lot less partying if we had to explain to our parents why we were hanging out so late and so often instead of getting our homework done.

Would French kids drinking habits be different if they attended Universities like those in the United States? Would American kids drinking habits be different if we weren't sheltered from it until attending college? My guess is that these changes would result in a closer parallel between American and French drinking habits and education, but I certainly cannot prove it.

If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know, I'd love to hear it.

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  1. What about the Irish. They are generally exposed to alchahol at younger ages yet they still get pissed just about anytime they go out.

  2. Sorry about how long it has taken me to reply...I just noticed this today!

    In answer to your question, I'm not exactly sure what the difference is. From what I've seen France tends to put emphasis on having wine and other alcohols to pair with food, aid digestion, or to spark an appetite, which might not be the case in Ireland and in the UK. So perhaps the difference might stem from the differences in the way that alcohol is treated in each country.

    I did take a look at some statistics regarding the matter and they do seem to back up your claim- Ireland's binge drinking rate is close to 50% of the adult population. Meanwhile, France is a little less than 10%. That's a pretty significant difference.

    Once again, I can only speculate here, but maybe in France, alcohol is seen as something to enhance a meal or spark conversation, while in Ireland it could viewed more as something to get you messed up.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. First thanks for the article, just discover it 2 years after.
    As for the Irish ( I am French living in Ireland for 7 years now ), let me give you my 2 cent, one of the main difference is the environment, in France you are introduce to alcohol by your parents, and it's more about pleasure and taste, and always in small amount. In Ireland, parents are shocked if you offer a small glass of wine to your kid, it's kind of forbidden in the family circle, and a bit hypocritical - since alduts would go drinking to the pub. As a result Irish discover alcohol with their mates, usually by sneaking any alcohol they can get their hands on, and they start by trying to getting drunk.
    When I first arrived, I was amazed to hear Irish state they did not like the taste of that particular beer, that they were only drinking to get hammered, while back home, it seems to me it was always about pleasure, taste first and drunkenness would be an unfortunate consequence, not that we would not get drunk, and french culture and literacy is full of drunk characters.